– March 15, 2023 –

Spaceport documents demanded

It’s been more than a month since the Georgia Supreme Court upheld the legitimacy of the Camden County referendum that quashed plans to buy land for the proposed Spaceport Camden. But the county is still keeping secret many of the documents related to the $12 million project. Now the Georgia Attorney General and a Grand Jury are leaning on the county to release the records, as The Current’s Mary Landers reports.

The Grand Jury subpoenaed a host of spaceport documents last week from the county manager, the county attorney and the county commission. In response, County Commission Chair Ben Casey announced he was requesting a Special Grand Jury to focus solely on Spaceport Camden.

The Attorney General’s office is mediating a request for public records made to the county by Kevin Lang, whose family owns property on Little Cumberland and who has long opposed the spaceport as an unacceptable risk to nearby residents. The county initially denied Lang’s request wholesale but has softened its position at the urging of Senior Assistant Attorney General Jennifer Colangelo. That discussion is ongoing, Colangelo indicated Tuesday.

Credit: spaceportcamden.us

Okefenokee bill gets a hearing

Despite boasting 91 bipartisan cosponsors, HB 71, The Okefenokee Protection Act, was still stuck in Rep. Lynn Smith’s (R-Newnan) Natural Resources Committee on crossover day. On Tuesday it finally got a hearing from the Resource Management Subcommittee, chaired by Rep. Vance Smith (R-Pine Mountain). The bill would prohibit surface mining operations on Trail Ridge for future permit applications. It’s worded so as to allow Alabama-based Twin Pines Minerals’ current application for a surface mining permit on about 700 acres near the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge to proceed.

But Tuesday’s two-hour hearing often sounded like a debate about Twin Pines’ application rather than about the bill. The anti-mining and pro-mining sides each got an hour to speak. Environmentalists spoke for HB 71 and and against mining while local government officials along with several Twin Pines representatives took the opposing sides.

Georgia River Network Executive Director Rena Ann Peck entered into the record a letter from former U.S. House Speaker Newt Gingrich and his daughter Jackie Gingrich Cushman supporting the bill. “While the concept of mining near the swamp might be met with cheers from those who may make money, the reality is that the Okefenokee Swamp is priceless and irreplaceable. If it is damaged, it cannot be restored,” they wrote.

Rep. John Corbett (R-Lake Park), whose district curls around the western side of the swamp, is not among the bill’s co-sponsors. Constituent Josh Howard took him to task for not signing.

“This may come as a surprise but there are many folks in Charlton County, residents, that oppose mining on Trail Ridge,” said Howard, the president of the Friends of the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. “The resolution and support for current mining proposals from the Charlton County Board of Commissioners does not represent the views of many of the residents of our county, only a few that stand to benefit personally and financially.”

Corbett said he opposes the bill because of private property rights.

“It walks all over private property rights,” he said. “We’re taking somebody’s property and not compensating them. Now, if the lady would like to put something into the bill to where we compensate for what we’re taking, I’m all in. Then we can have that conversation.”

Josh Howard speaks to the subcommittee.

Sapelo’s Geechee oppose bill

Legislation to modify the rules of the Sapelo Island Heritage Authority is worrying the island’s Geechee residents, descendants of enslaved Africans on Sapelo. HB 273 would allow the governor to replace himself as chair with an appointment and it establishes an additional position on the board for a “resident” of Hogg Hammock.

Geechee descendants fear the rules could result in them losing control of their heritage, as Alexandra Martinez writes for Prism. Three Sapelo-focused groups — Save Our Land Ourselves, Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society, and the Hogg Hammock Community Foundation — issued a press release opposing the legislation.

“The ownership of property and homes on Sapelo Island is rapidly transitioning,” wrote Josiah Watts, Sapelo Island Cultural and Revitalization Society Board Member and Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Commissioner. “We, the descendants of those formerly enslaved by Thomas Spalding, are being pushed off our land because newer owners are building homes that are in violation of our historic preservation zoning code and driving up our property taxes. The Sapelo Island Heritage Authority is a tool that could help ensure a future presence the Gullah Geechee people and descendants of the original 44 families that were enslaved on Sapelo. But it could also be used to facilitate the removal of descendants.”

HB 273 passed the House on March 2 and has been assigned to the Natural Resources and Environment Committee in the Senate, which will hold a hearing on the bill at 8 a.m. today. The bill is sponsored by Rep. Buddy DeLoach (R-Townsend) and co-sponsored by Reps. Jesse Petrea (R-Savannah), Rick Townsend (R-Brunswick), and Al Williams (D-Midway).

Descendants of the enslaved African community have been on Sapelo Island for 13 generations. But just 30 descendants of the original 44 enslaved families remain.

Sapelo Island
Sign designating the Historic Hog Hammock Community on Sapelo Island. Credit: Jeffery M. Glover/ The Current

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Attorney General, Grand Jury lean on Camden to release spaceport records

More than a month after the state Supreme Court ruled against Camden, the county still keeps its spaceport documents secret

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Ga. Supreme Court upholds public vote to veto spaceport

A Georgia Supreme Court decision upholds Camden County’s March referendum in which voters rejected the purchase of land for a spaceport.

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Georgia GOP lawmaker pushes bill to protect ‘vital and precious’ Okefenokee from new mining proposals

The revamped bill narrows down the location where mining would be blocked. And as before, it would only apply to future permit applications submitted or amended after July 1.

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Sapelo Island’s Geechee residents worry state Senate bill could disenfranchise them

Rep. Buddy DeLoach said the seat will be given to a resident of the community on Sapelo Island. But according to Bailey, the descendants on the island were not informed of the bill, and Bailey only learned of it through a contact on the Capitol floor.

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Sapelo natives reach agreement in long fight with county over basic services

Lawsuit, in which a jury trial was set to begin this week in Savannah federal court, was attempt to force the county to provide Hogg Hummock basic public services that homeowners pay for with taxes but which have been denied them.

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Mary Landers covers Coastal Georgia’s environment for The Current, a topic she covered for nearly 24 years at the Savannah Morning News, where she began and ended her time there writing about health,...